Friday, June 29, 2012

All Your Base

Recently I introduced a discussion of the endgame in cape-and-sword roleplaying games, the point in a campaign at which the player characters become authority figures in the game-world, where conflicts transition from the physical to the political and power comes from one's position at least as often as from one's sword arm.

So far the discussion focused on resources the adventurers may bring to bear as they reach the endgame: social standing and influence, wealth, contacts, and clients. Next I want to take a look at that icon of the roleplaying endgame, the stronghold.

Player characters in Flashing Blades may acquire property a couple of ways. First, there is the Land Advantage available to some beginning characters. Taking this Advantage grants the character a townhouse, a villa, a small or large estate, or - on a roll of 20 on 1D20 - a château; the Land advantage also confers additional income as part of the character's annual allowance, which is important as property also requires annual upkeep and is assessed for taxes each year.

Second, a player may also invest with the goal of acquiring a property, as per the investment rules, or purchase an available property. The rules are silent on whether or not properties acquired by investment or purchase come with additional income as with the Land Advantage, so I have a simple house rule which determines if a property also comes with income.

Roll (D6) Income
0-3 No income from property
4-5 Income as one property lower in Land Advantage
6 Income as per Land Advantage
7 Income as per Land Advantage plus Social Rank 8
Modifiers -1 for villa, +1 for château

Note that a character of SR 7 or less must successfully petition the king to purchase a property which confers nobility with it; the details of this will be handled in another post.

So acquiring a 'stronghold' in Flashing Blades is really pretty simple - a lucky starting character may even begin the campaign with a castle, without clearing a monster-filled wilderness first or hiring architects and stoneworkers to build it for him. Of course, that same character doesn't attract followers - other than a small serving staff that he pays for - or rule his land as a sovereign baron.

That's because strongholds in Flashing Blades aren't castles. They're cities. And provinces. And bishoprics. And you don't attract a handful of men-at-arms. You command a company, or a battalion, or a regiment, or an army . . . or the entire army.

Consider this passage from Flashing Blades, titled, "Entering the Bureaucracy from Other Careers."
Characters who reach high positions in other careers may, if they are ambitious, attempt to enter the Bureaucracy at high levels. Any character who holds the Title of Count or above, and has the skill Magistracy may attempt to become a Magistrate (on a roll of 9 or more) at the beginning of each year after the start of the game. Any character who holds the Title of Duke or above, may attempt to become a Royal Official (on a roll of 9 or more) at the beginning of each year after the start of the game.

Any character in the military with the Rank of Brigadier or above who (1) has the skill Magistracy, (2) has been a Martial Magistrate and (3) now has a Staff position (not a Commander) may attempt to become a Magistrate (on a roll of 8 or more) at the beginning of each year. Any character in the military of the of the [sic] Rank of Major General or above (or any retired Lt. General or above) who does not hold a Command position (or a Field Marechal who chooses not to go on Campaign with his Army) may attempt to become a Royal Official (on a roll of 9 or more) at the beginning of each year.

Any character in the Clergy who is a Prince Bishop or a Cardinal may attempt to become a Royal Official (on a roll of 9 or more) at the beginning of each year.

Any character who is a Master or Grandmaster of a Noble or Royal Order may attempt to become a Royal Official (on a roll of 9 or more at the beginning of each year.
[emphasis added - BV]
In other words, when a character reaches the highest levels of the military, Church, knighthood, or nobility, the next step for ambitious characters is the royal bureacracy.

And what exactly is a Royal Official?
A Royal Official may have the position of Provincial Governor (on a roll of 9+; +1 for having been a Lt. Governor, +1 if Social Rank is 12 or more), Ambassador (requires 1 foreign language and Etiquette skills, no roll necessary) or a City Mayor otherwise. Each of these special positions has its own pay and powers as shown below:
  • A Provincial Governor is paid 350 L per year. He may squeeze up to an additional 1000 L per year from the people of his province, at the risk of open revolt. Within his province, a Governor has the powers of a Magistrate. In addition, he has Command of a Battalion (2 companies) of Fusiliers to keep the peace, and as personal guards.
  • An Ambassador is paid 300 L per year, and is sent to another country as an emissary (likely countries are Spain, England, The Holy Roman Empire, an Italian City State, the Vatican, etc.). He may also receive gifts from the ruler of the country he stays in. This position is of particular interest to Player Characters because of many opportunities for adventure it offers (special missions, treaties, political intrigues, etc.). Ambassadors always have an entourage, including several other Bureaucrats, a Priest (especially if going to a Protestant country), and some guards (usually from the Guards or Swiss Guards Rgts.).
  • A City Mayor is paid 300 L per year. He may squeeze up to an additional 500 L per year from the citizens, at the risk of open revolt. Within his city, a Mayor has the powers of a Magistrate. He also commands a company of Fusiliers to keep the peace, and as his personal guards.
A Magistrate is a powerful figure in his own right, of course.
A Magistrate is a kind of 17th Century Judge and Jury. Provincial justice, and the judgement of crimes committed by people of Social Rank 7 and below will be entrusted to a Magistrate. To pass judgement on a criminal (or framed person) of Social Rank 8 to 12, a tribunal of three or five Magistrates will be formed. Those persons of Social Rank 13 or above may only be judged by the Minister of Justice or the King, and only these personages may overrule a Magistrate or Magistrate tribunal. A character who is a Magistrate may arrest an enemy of lower Social Rank once per year (he is imprisoned for 1D6 weeks). If the enemy is four or more Social Ranks below him, the Magistrate may trump up charges against him (see the Appendix for details on Courts and Justice).
So, a Royal Official governs a city or province, metes out justice - or injustice, depending on his inclinations - and commands a company or battalion of soldiers, or receives "gifts" - a subtle way of describing the bribes offered by foreign princes to ambassadors in exchange for influence at the French court - and an entourage to aid in the performance of his duties.

Reflecting the change from the feudalism to the emerging modern state, a character's power comes less from the land he inherits or buys to the land he controls as part of his position with the society and government. Consider a historical example. After Cardinal Richelieu became Louis XIII's minister of state, he began consolidating his personal powerbase, which included a the governorship of a number of cities around France as well as the province of Brittany; when it appeared that he was about to fall from Louis' favor in the events leading up to the Day of the Dupes, Richelieu planned to flee to Le Harve, the La Manche city that was one of his governorships. Le Harve offered him a place of refuge as well as a point of departure should he need to leave France to escape the king's wrath.

So what good is acquiring property, then? Why bother with the Land Advantage at all?

First, property is still a form of wealth, a valuable one that can be liquidated for cash if need be. A Banker, for example, could take the Land Advantage, sell the property, and use the proceeds to invest or lend, earning interest each year - this can actually be more lucrative than taking the Wealth Advantage. By purchasing additional hectares of land for use as pasture, farmland, orchards or vineyards, a property owner may increase the wealth his land provides.

Second, there is a social obligation to owning land. Per the core rules, for example, an Archduke must own a château and a Grand Duke must own two - per the house rules of my campaign, this applies to Peers of France (duc et pair) and foreign princes (prince étranger), respectively - and lesser nobles are likely to find themselves spurned and insulted for failing to live in the style appropriate to their ranks.

Third, in my campaign property may be used as a means of gaining Favors by entertaining. Balls, hunts, and the like are a staple of noble life, as is the ostentatious display of wealth. In order to seek a Favor, first the honored guest from the whom the Favor is solicited must be invited, on a successful Charm check, with a bonus for the Etiquette skill and modified by the difference in Social Rank between the host and the honored guest. A number of additional guests should be invited equal to the Social Rank of the honored guest - this is doubled if the guest is the king! A Wit check, with bonuses for both Etiquette and Heraldry skill, insures that the guest list doesn't contain any inappropriate invitations.

Entertaining is expensive: each invited guest costs the host the equivalent of one month's upkeep at the guest's Social Rank. Frex, a baron is the honored guest, so there must be ten additional guests, each costing three times their respective Social Ranks in livres to entertain. Increasing this to six times Social Rank gets the host a +3 bonus when rolling to see if the favor is earned.

Guests are typically invited to stay for a week, and various activities are organized each day for their pleasure; a clever host will learn as much as he can about his honored guest and plan activities which cater to his interests, as reflected in his skills. Frex, the baron may enjoy hunting (Tracking skill), gambling (Gambling skill), or chess (Strategy skill).

To determine if a Favor is earned, roll a Charm check, with a bonus for Etiquette skill, doubling the amount spent as host, and for each activity in which the honored guest's skills come into play; the difference in Social Rank between the host and the honored guest is also a modifier to the roll. A successful check means the host has earned a Favor from the honored guest.

Note that the various skill checks describe a resolution system, not a substitute for roleplaying. None of these rolls are expected to replace the referee's judgement or stand-in for the players' in-character choices in actual play.

Last, a property owner may also attract retainers. Retainers, a hold-over practice from the Middle Ages, are armed nobles living in the property owner's household. They may serve as members of the household staff, or simply be 'boon companions' to the owner. Retainers are acquired not by offering patronage but rather providing for their upkeep; in return, they protect their master's interests.

There is one more sort of stronghold common to cape-and-sword tales and games: a ship. Ships confer little in the way of advantage with respect to influence, but they can be powerful economic engines - through trade, privateering, or piracy - and are perhaps closer in spirit to the 'fighter's stronghold' of classic D&D. They are also expensive to acquire and maintain, and vulnerable to a variety of man-made and natural hazards.

Bear in mind that through this discussion I'm looking at how the stronghold of cape-and-sword roleplaying influences the endgame of intrigue. A player character's home may figure prominently in their adventures, of course, and shouldn't be discounted as such.

So far, my discussion of the endgame focused on the kinds of resources which the players' characters accumulate as they gain power in the game-world: rank, influence, wealth, contacts, favors, clients, and strongholds. Next week, it's time to start looking at the endgame from the referee's side of the table, of delivering a game-world in which the characters no longer serve Richelieu or Mazarin, but rather are Richelieu or Mazarin.


  1. Very much looking forward to that upcoming article, Mike.

    I'm really enjoying this series. I'm still not seeing how I could put it into play, but the more I've talked with my group, the more I realize that Flashing Blades doesn't offer what they want.

    I suspect I need to do three things: 1) play a lot more FB before I try to run it again, 2) do a lot more period research, and 3) recruit a group of players who specifically want to play this sort of game.

    It reminds me a lot of the difficulties I had running Vampire: The Masquerade back in the 1990s. I wanted to do lots of intrigue but I find myself incapable of putting together a good "living city" even when I'm using a place and time I know well (e.g., New Orleans, Rome, or Venice).

    There's some tertium quid I'm missing. Your series of essays is helping me identify some of it, but I think there's something obvious I'm just not grasping. The write-ups you are doing strike me as a solid, common sense approach to this type of game. Why these points aren't obvious to me until after I've read your posts escapes me.

    And I'm still not sure how to put them into practice...I had the same problem with singing Gregorian Chant until someone explained to me that in ancient music Note and Pitch aren't the same thing, whereas in modern music they are. That one fact was a revelation to me that unlocked chant for me. That's the best analogy I can come up with.

    1. I'm glad that these posts are worth coming back for, Chris. Hopefully the next couple might clear up some of the shadowy corners.